The annual Conservative Political Action Conference came to a raucous and buoyant end Saturday as thousands of tea party activists cheered on former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who closed the gathering with a full-throated denunciation of President Obama and urged conservatives to embrace their views more fiercely than ever.
But over the course of its three days, the event put on display how factions within the Republican Party are still struggling to find a path out of the wilderness, illuminating the gap between the GOP’s resolutely conservative grass-roots and a party leadership eager for a more moderate approach.
Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, a Republican and actor who appeared on a panel, said the gathering was especially indicative of growing tensions on immigration reform and foreign policy, and one of many meetings in the past year where the GOP’s base has met to toast their favorites while remaining unsettled on an agenda.
“CPAC doesn’t make any pretension of speaking for the party, but we’re seeing these fluid debates and there is no clear consensus,” he said. “The attitude here is: Let a thousand flowers bloom.”
Added Grover Norquist, an anti-tax activist: “This is where we come together. No one said we’d all agree.”
On Thursday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — an avowed hawk — laid out his foreign-policy vision, drawing a warm reception from the older members of the audience but closed hands from the libertarian students sitting in the back rows.
“Quite frankly, we would much rather just focus on our lives here,” Rubio said. “But we cannot ignore the reality of who we are.”
A day later, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who won the conference’s presidential straw poll for a second straight year, drew a contrast with Rubio and other hawks who spoke, such as former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, arguing for a less aggressive national-security policy, with particularly sharp criticism of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.
“We will not trade our liberty for security,” Paul said, as his supporters excitedly toted bright red “Stand With Rand” posters.
On immigration, CPAC organizers, led by pro-immigration-reform attorney Al Cardenas, held sessions encouraging continued reform efforts on Capitol Hill. But they also quarreled with critics of reform, irking grass-roots leaders who attended but were not invited to speak.
“You don’t have to read the tea leaves,” grumbled Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group opposed to the Senate’s bill. “Immigration skeptics have been pushed out.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was greeted with roaring approval Saturday when she warned conservatives not to engage with Democrats seeking a bipartisan immigration plan. “The last thing conservatives should do is help the president pass his number-one goal, and that’s amnesty,” she said.
Elsewhere, rather than offering a vivid display of the differing perspectives within the party, CPAC was more a celebration of conservative darlings past and present, with the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre, businessman Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) offering heaping chunks of red meat to a packed ballroom at the Gaylord Hotel in suburban Washington.
Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible GOP presidential contender who has at times been a critic of his party, played to the crowd Thursday, asking, “Mr. President, what the hell are we paying you for?”
Lines were frequently drawn not so much on policy, but on tactics and posture, with Cruz and others blaming the party’s leadership’s strategy for the GOP’s electoral woes. The party’s leadership, in response, seemed humbled by the pressure.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, appeared on a Saturday panel, voicing solidarity with conservatives and making little mention of the RNC’s initiative to soften the party’s edge. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is facing a primary challenge, brought a rifle with him onstage, receiving thumbs-ups from the activists who have caused him headaches recently.
In between speeches by the more well-known Republican faces, a constellation of fading conservative stars appeared, such as Oliver North, the Iran-Contra figure, and Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, a pair of controversial former Senate candidates.
A host of former presidential candidates were there as well, with former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich roaming the hallways and sitting down for interviews with the conservative talk-radio hosts perched in lobby booths.
Ben Carson, a Maryland surgeon who burst onto the scene last year at the National Prayer Breakfast, where he took a shot at the Affordable Care Act as Obama listened from two seats away, was given one of the warmest receptions Saturday, telling Republicans not to lay aside their socially conservative principles in order to win.
Rooster Jacobson, a 33-year-old Texas contractor with a multi-color mohawk haircut, said he was disappointed CPAC did not make more of an effort to appeal to people with opposing views. “If Republicans want to be a big-tent party, they should act like it,” he said.
But Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in a Thursday speech, explained away the tumult seen at CPAC and within the Republican Party as part of the party’s recovery process following the 2012 election, saying it’s a sign that in spite of its difficulties, the GOP is searching for answers.
“The way the left tells it, the Republican Party is in this big, massive civil war,” he said. “Look, I’m Irish. That’s my idea of a family reunion.”
The sprawling event, held near the Potomac River, was hosted by the American Conservative Union, an advocacy group founded in 1964 by William F. Buckley Jr., the late editor of National Review.
In the ensuing decades, CPAC has evolved from a low-key conference where Ronald Reagan casually strolled the halls in the 1970s into a more corporate spectacle, with dozens of conservative organizations and media companies setting up shop.